‘I’ve never been to me’ , the song sung by Charlene was released in 1976 and back in the days  it was popular and the ballad was  also sung by other vocalists subsequently. The song was written by Ron Miller and Kenneth Hirsch. The narratives are by a woman addressing a desperate wife and mother who would like to trade her mundane  existence for the life of the narrator who has led a carefree and hedonistic life but the narrator  tells the other  woman that she has her regrets.

I’ve been to paradise but I’ve never been to me

Hey, you know what paradise is?
It’s a lie
A fantasy we created about people and places

As we like them to be
But you know what truth is?

It’s that little baby you’re holding
And it’s that man you fought with this morning
The same one you are gonna make love to tonight
That’s truth that’s love


The song seems to suggest that women do not really know what they want but that is an unfair statement. For that matter, most of us do not know what we want as we lack self-knowledge. Perhaps we know what we want but we do not know what to expect. For most of us, things happen by default.Many women want what every man wants but somehow they find themselves at a crossroad and pressured particularly when biological clock is ticking because they need to decide if they want to bear children never mind there is always families, institutions, societal pressures making you feel inadequate if you do not follow the norm.

During the war , women had to take over the roles of the men and worked in factories and offices when the men joined the military services. When the war was over, women had to give up those roles and they were told to seek their fulfilment as wives and mothers. Women became unhappy because their choices were limited and they were trying to fit this feminine mystique ideal image carved out by the women’s magazines, schools, institutions, advertisers, corporations that had a vested interest in promoting  their products to upkeep the perfect suburban contemporary home.  In 1963, Betty  Friedan  called it the problem that has no name in her book  The Feminine Mystique,

Nowadays married women are no longer expected to stay home. Many women  work to gain financial independence and a sense of  fulfilment outside their domestic frontier to attain some form of autonomy. Women’s publications and mainstream media tell  stories about women who could have it all. In reality can a woman or anybody really have it all ?

The thing is most women would find that when we work, the assumption is the housekeeping remains  a woman’s primary responsibility including  caring for  the  needs and welfare of young children and aging parents. We find that most women constantly have to juggle and  compromise what they really want for themselves to achieve a life balance  in order to  keep her sanity while maintaining stable and functioning home particularly in the case when the men are more capable in terms of bringing home the income and earnings  for the house.

 Marriage is a partnership where both  parties commit to pull their weight and  share responsibilities in creating a family life and a home to return to at the end of the day. Both parties are expected to share responsibilities fifty : fifty but how do you divide domestic responsibilities ? Does that mean that you have a duty roster like what you have at the work place or when you share a flat with your housemates during varsity days? On the days one cook, the other person washes the dishes and take out the trash? You do the laundry, he cleans the bathroom and  toilet. Who will be in charge when a child comes along? What happens if a woman ’s line of work demands more attention than another although it does not bring in the monetary rewards necessarily , will the husband be sensitive and considerate instead of only paying full attention to his own career and expect her to be understanding and cope on her own somehow? Our work is our life, we are expected to succeed and that is our goal. The man will probably say that. It would appear that women who have decided to have a job outside our home are merely passing the time. If we think seriously about it, we are all merely doing something to pass  the time.

Life is doing time and why should his time be valued more? Is it because he is earning more and that should be the yardstick ? If a woman has to divide her attention in focusing on whatever  personal goals that she might have and  instead dedicating her time in prioritising  the needs of their children ( which she would want to ) and elderly parents, she will definitely  have to step up her resolve if she wants to pursue her dreams with intent but  no assurance or little guarantees  that her efforts will bear fruits let alone material success.

An expectant mother  anticipates the new arrival and when the baby is born,  she  breast feeds the baby, by default she becomes the parent who tends to all the feeds and care of the baby. In the scenario where both adults are working and if they can afford domestic live-in help, they hire help to do the chores they do not want to engage in.

In Kim Jiyoung Born 1982, the  Korean couple cannot afford help thus the wife has to give up her job  when their daughter is born. Jiyoung is a conscientious and brilliant student  and after graduating, she enjoys working in a marketing agency. She has her own dreams and it will not be practical for her to pursue them . Throughout her life , she suffers gender bias and she realises that  no matter how she does it , she is unable to beat the patriarchal structure even if she plays by the rules, in that process, she has a mental breakdown.

Gender equality essentially means equal opportunities for both sexes but it would be a constant tug of war if  the man ignores or is  unaware of the needs of his wife just because she is capable of taking care of herself and everything at home regardless of whether she works or not. The  woman will begin to feel resentful and cheated as her dreams may never realise.

There is 50: 50 there is 50: 50 , his version or  her version ?

In My Hollywood, a fiction written by Mona Simpson , this is how the story begins.

That evening, their first date, Claire, a composer and Paul, a TV comedy writer had a conversation about who would do what.

‘Once, we sat with a small candle between us on the tablecloth, drinks for our hands. After the salad, he asked if I wanted children.

“ I don’t know.” I fingered the glass votive. “I’d like to, but I don’t know if I can.”

  That got his attention. His whole head stilled.

My hands fluttered to reassure. “No, it’s not that. I mean, I don’t know if I can afford them. I want to write music. And I’ve already started that.”

 He had a nice manner. He said he didn’t know musicians that well, men or women, but he counted on his fingers female writers who’d had children. He actually couldn’t think of any

“ With a woman who worked, it’d have to be fifty-fifty ,” he said .  “ Of course.”’

They didn’t talk about  that again until after their son, William was born. For Paul’s career, the couple moved from New York to Los Angeles. The marriage between Claire and Paul changed after their son was  born. Claire struggled to maintain her sense of self, and  her identity as a music composer with  work to be done and at the same time her desire to be a great mother. They hired Lola, a Filipino as their live-in help. Lola , a fifty- two-year-old mother of five was dependable. Lola has been working in America to pay for her own children’s education back in the Philippines.

The narrations alternate between the main character, Claire, a composer and her Filipino help, Lola. There are also many other foreign domestic helps and their employers in the story.

Here is a narrative in Claire’s voice,

‘ When Paul first told me he wanted to write television comedy, I’d been surprised. That’s your dream? I thought. It didn’t seem big enough for a dream.

“ Yup. I really think I coulda done it.”

“ I bet you still can.”

Claire could see in his face, this was an ardent wish. So when Paul got the offer in California, she said, Let’s go.

For him to have his chance, Paul had to work into the late hours  leaving Claire to take care of their child with Lola’s help. Claire loves their son, William but she also wants to compose music as that is what she does. As a struggling artist, she did not get paid much but she ended up paying more to bring Lola along when her composition was being performed in New York.

In Lola’s narrations,

I pack everything to bring downstairs. As I fit the clean clothes in the bag of Claire, I see a check, typed, from the concert hall. The envelope, it is ripped open already, but the amount is wrong: one thousand U.S, dollars. Another check from Yale University. This one for two hundred.

This does not make sense. I know what she is paying me. She told me one hundred extra each day for three days. I get out my airline ticket. On the bottom, the price says six hundred eighty-five and forty cents. What I earn from this trip will be more than she gets.

I put Williamo in the stroller still adding. I unpack her bag again to see if there is another check. Only clothes. A mystery. She is doing this for something else. It does not pay.

Me, I work for money. I haul the suitcase, thinking. I will call home tomorrow. My husband tells me Issa, she is complaining. But what does she have to complain? We pay her tuition ; all she has to do is study. She is saying too she does not want to work for money only.

What a bittersweet story about love, marriage and family. It feels so real. Seemingly when a couple has a child, everything changes for the wife and almost nothing changes for the man who carries on working long hours and leaving the wife to manage the household with the support of their live-in help. A domestic read, at times tedious as the narratives are packed with details about Claire’s and Lola’s lives and also the happenings in their friends’ lives. A masterful piece of work with animated dialogues between the characters. Mona Simpson is observant and insightful. My Hollywood portrays the subtle inequities of domestic politics and the sacrifices that domestic helpers like Lola has made so as to afford her own daughters’ education. During the time she is away from her homeland, Lola is able to adapt anywhere, but when she gets home, where is her sense of belonging? I have Simpson’s book Anywhere But Here and plan to read it soon.

I came across this review written by Ron Charles.

Click Review written by Ron Charles


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